Rare Book MonthlyNew Letter
Letters to the Editor
. October 25, 2005
Saw your article on eBay bookselling. Let me take
slight objection to this statement:
"Sellers write their own descriptions. With a stake in
the outcome some sellers are tempted to over describe
virtues while under describing problems. There is a
term for this: lying."
While you may be a seasoned rare book collector and
familiar with the ABAA-style technical lingo, most
people shopping for rare books on eBay really are not.
We sell about 1500 rare book lots per year on eBay,
and at first we went on using "rare books" lingo, but
we quickly learned that this was both confusing and
off-putting to the many, if not most, of our
customers. So for several years we have been writing
descriptions meant for people with no collecting
experience, precisely describing major flaws but not
minor ones, and, yes, carefully describing all of the
virtues of a given piece. We combine this with
unlimited questions and a completely open return
policy, for any reason, --and this has served us
beautifully. People who were scared away by reference
to slight "foxing" are now happily bidding, and our
careful photographs and e-mail responses are good
enough for collectors who want more precise condition
I kid you not when I mention that we once got an
e-mail from a potential buyer asking if "foxing" meant
that a fox (the animal), had damaged the book. We also
ceased using the word "copy" in favor of the much more
awkward "example" in our listings in our third year on
eBay, when we discovered that some large number of
potential bidders thought that "a good copy" meant "a
good replica", i.e, a reproduction, and not a genuine
example of the original book. I once went through an
extended e-mail exchange trying to explain our use of
"copy", by suggesting that a press prints 100,000
"copies" of a newspaper, just as it might publish a
book, therefore by "copy", we mean just what you would
mean if you said "I'm going to get a copy of today's
paper." You don't mean a replica of the paper, I
said, you mean "an example" of the real thing. A very
bright woman, but she really had no idea what I was
talking about. To her "copy" always seemed to mean
"fake". There are countless other examples.
So Bruce, not "over describing" or "lying", just using
plain words to make people without vast collecting
experience feel comfortable. I agree that without
something like the ABAA grading system, dishonest
sellers are given an opportunity, but one must not
assume that all sellers on eBay or elsewhere who are
not using such technical terms are dishonest.
Sincerest Best Wishes,
Bruce McKinney's Reply:
Dear Mr. Erikson,
You points are well taken. I did not intend to make a blanket statement about eBay sellers. Many, perhaps I should say most, sellers make a reasonable effort to be honest. They fairly describe and as importantly respond quickly and accurately to questions. I've encountered what appears to me to be dishonest behavior a few times, shunned these sellers and noticed, without my ever having said anything to anyone, that other buyers have done the same. I do object to those sellers who load their listings with inappropriate keywords. They waste my time.
All things considered eBay is a remarkable marketplace and it will only get better with time.
. October 04, 2005
As a dealer who occasionally turns to eBay both as a selling venue and as a source of "replenishing stock," I would take issue with Mr.
McKinney's estimate that eBay brings, on average, "20% of retail" value for old books. This may be true if one takes in the entire spectrum of books sold on eBay--from pocket paperbacks to book club editions to old textbooks at the low end, all the way up to antiquarian and rare titles at the high end. If one wishes to assign any "retail value" at all to the lower end--to the sorts of books which bring no money at all on eBay--one must also acknowledge that such books would never appear in a reputable rare book auction. When weighted for items of comparable quality comparably described, eBay delivers results on a par with traditional auction houses. In fact, I have essentially ceased trying to replenish mid-grade stock on eBay--if I could buy books in the $100 to $1000 (retail) range for 20% of their value on eBay, I would certainly be doing so on a regular basis. However in my experience as both a buyer and a seller (going back to 1997) I have found that such books, if described well enough for me to feel confident in buying them, sell generally for between 60% and 100% of retail, and occasionally for astronomical prices that would never be seen on the traditional auction floor. I attribute this to competition between buyers from every point on the sophistication continuum--from the extreme novice, who has no acquaintance with traditional auctions, to the seasoned collector or dealer, who knows more-or-less precisely what a given book is worth at a given time.
The insinuation of internet bidding into the brick-and-mortar auction house thus presents a problem. I and many other dealers depend upon such mid-level auction houses as Baltimore, Waverly, and New England as a source of mid-level "collectible" material. Unfortunately, if the trend of "eBay live" bidding on auction floors persists, pitting novices against experienced bidders (and consuming vast amounts of time, taking the average 300-lot auction from a two-hour to a five-hour affair), I'm afraid the result will be general price inflation--a result which may please auctioneers in the short term, but which will certainly alienate their traditional customer base over time.
I'd be interested in receiving a copy, if it's available, of Bruce's original article, in which he established the 20% figure--I didn't have a chance to read it when it first appeared. It may be, of course, that the caveats I mentioned were already established by him in the original
Fair enough. I'm expressing opinion. In my world which includes using AE's MatchMaker and keywords to identify material on eBay I find and bid on interesting material all the time. Of course there are great items that are reserved high and also bring full prices. I too see this material but rarely bid. I'm content to ferret out the unusual, obscure, inaccurately and under-described to bid. It's there.
As to the 20% figure this has simply been my impression. Over the past two years I've bought about 100 items on eBay under two IDs. In a few cases I paid less than 10% of market value and in a few cases more than 100% [because I didn't do my homework]. Generally the price I have paid seems to be 20+% of retail this year, up a bit from last year. BEM
. October 01, 2005
Your editorial on schools. There is an answer!
Stevens Highschool in San Antonio, TX is now implementing this theory. My son, who adores his school, went down to Texas this past summer for a week to help this school learn how to be a Quality School. I could go on and on! But this whole thing was started by William Glasser who has written a number of books of which Choice Theory explains things more clearly. There is hope, maybe only a glimmer in the face of things, but it only takes a tiny spark of light to break through darkness. Feel free to contact me at any time. Dr. Glasser will be talking in our area in November as a fund raiser to send a group again this summer to help Stevens High School with their program. Thank you for caring about kids and pointing out how something needs to be done! Something is being done but so few know!
Janet R. Holt
The Critical Eye Used Books
THE-WORD September 24, 2005
KUDOS!!! BRAVO!!! WELL SAID LAD!!! YOUR PROFOUND AND ON TARGET ON DISSECTION OF THE RECENT MACHINATIONS PERPETRATED BY THE "NON COMPOS MENTIS BABOONUS RECTUMI" AT ABEBOOKS WAS A MASTERPIECE OF DIPLOMATIC CENSURE. IN SHORT, THEY ARE GREEDY, SELF-DEFEATING, DISRESPECTFUL AND BITING THE HAND THAT FEEDS THEM.
"Baruch D'Var Hashem"
Antiquarian Bibles and Books
143 Dorchester St. #369
South Boston, MA 02127
jjca10 September 13, 2005
As an inveterate BUYER of books through ABE, i used to use the 'contact dealer' option to discuss type of payment accepted, etc. rather than make alternate buying plans which left ABE out, which many of my on-line friends readily admitted to. (I found that the dealer information was not consistently filled out, and therefore it was hard to tell who would accept a check vs. credit card, etc.) Now that this option is much harder to access, i am finding that i am having a harder time as a BUYER as well - something your article did not address.
On the whole, I would say that the BUYERS as mentioned above may have spoiled ABE for us all to some extent.
karen September 10, 2005
As a person who BUYS many books online I wanted to give my input on Abebooks. I have had sooooooo many orders cancelled on Abebooks after I went through the whole process of ordering and giving credit card info just to get an email a day or 2 later saying it was cancelled that I stopped using Abebooks completely about 10 months ago. My time is worth more than that! It is the ultimate in frustrating to search for a out of print book and find one that seems to fit what you need and then take the time to order it just to get it cancelled 24-48 hours later! Forget it. No more. I have found that most of the books I order online from Alibris or Amazon independent sellers to ship and promptly. So now I stick with those 2 online books sellers (and sometimes Ebay but with that the descriptions are often not good). Abebooks is the pits.
. September 09, 2005
I could not thoroughly scan your article on ABE. I have been spouting this for several years (your first article). Client - dealer relationship is the most important. I learned this in 1970 while working for Caravan-Maritime Books in Jamaca, Queens NY for several years. They bought low and sold high, High but the material - just lucious (from 1600s to 1950s). This was one of the very best maritime firms in the US at that time. Today as Oceanside Books I have been in business since 1973 and the credo is client - dealer and quality of the scarce book is most important. Thank you for the articles and keep pressing on.
Cleveland, GA (formerly NY)
Handle September 04, 2005
I am a book collecter and have found ABE to be a good resource when looking for scarce titles and trying to determine the fair market value of a book. I've purchased books via ABE for many years and enjoy the direct dealer contact. I recently tried to contact a dealer about a listed book and was met with a pop up requiring me to register with ABE before they would pass along my inquiry to the dealer. I'm not interested in getting junk email and the net result was a dealer lost a probable sale. If the present trend continues, I'm looking forward to the new web service that replicates the old ABE service connecting customers and dealers. Perhaps ABAA could provide the service by opening up their listings to non-members for a fixed fee. Collectors would flock to the site if the data base of books made the visit worthwhile.
. September 04, 2005
As a small specialist bookseller in the UK I found your recent article
about ABE hit a vital nail precisely on its head. As with so many things
in a market economy, service becomes increasingly secondary to profit. It is in the hands of we the clients to ensure direct contact with buyers remains possible, without it ABE does not merit our continued patronage. Thank you for such necessary, salutary plain speaking.
Peter McEwan (Dr)
. September 02, 2005
Dear Mr. McKinney,
Many thanks to you for your fine, incisive articles, and your own ideas about abebooks. Frustrated, I was flailing about whether to strike my effigy of GWB or delete all of abe from my hard drive.
Now that I have found reason via your articles and wonderful Sept. AE Monthly, I am becalmed, and hasten to inform you how much your monthlies add to this bookseller's pleasure.
Clare Van Norman, Jr.
J September 02, 2005
Thanks for lengthy appraisal of Abe. I wrote them 3 times asking why my inventory had vanished, never got a direct answer. Just an evasive one.
However, I also do not like your patronising attitude toward "amateurs" as you style us. OK, I buy books at book sales, and sell on Abe, but if I buy cheap, I sell cheap, and usually to pros, who, let's face it, could not do without scouts. And have you ever tried to sell a book to a pro bookseller...who could all get Oscars in the film trade? Here is just one story. I offered a fine signed Freddie Forsyth on Abe to a dealer for just ten pounds. He bitched about paying the true postal rate, and demanded a discount. On ten pounds? So, I offered to take the book from Spain to UK and post to him from there, which would have been a lot cheaper for him, less convenient for me.
Guess what...he still wanted dealer discount for something he probably would sell at twice or three times what it cost him. Then there was the UK dealer who adopted a mortified expression when offered Flying Finish, the early Dick Francis, as if he already had 40 copies unsold on his shelves. So, no crocodile tears for dealers from me.
. September 02, 2005
GREAT articles on ABE.
. September 02, 2005
Dear Mr Mckinney,
Thank you so much for those most interesting articles, especially the
two on Abebooks. Being a secondhand bookseller I found the information
very interesting and useful. I had been beginning to wonder about these
issues lately myself.
Lake Daylesford Book Barn
. September 01, 2005
Dear Bruce --
Thanks for the excellent articles about abebooks. We (High Meadows Natural History Books) joined abe in 1997, and we even visited their ever-growing headquarters in Victoria a couple of years ago. We were treated royally by the kids (97 of them!) who made up their staff, but I was dismayed by the pervasive lack of bookselling knowledge among the personnel and the obvious empire-building that was underway. I did not feel that the firm would stay in the collectible book business for long, and by now, we get the feeling that we are involved in just another commodity market.
It's not as much fun for us now, so we are going to cash out at years's end. No problem, as I am the science director for a large conservation organization, and bookselling has represented only a minor portion of our income, but we will remember fondly the days of Bibliofind and abebooks back when their single server kept going down all the time.
Meanwhile, AE Monthly is a splendid concoction, and I hope to meet you in person someday to thank you for it.
High Meadows Natural History Books
. September 01, 2005
RE: Abe on the wild side
ABE is only one of many listing agents availabe to sellers. My colleague sells more collectable books on other sites now than on ABE. ABE needs to provide sales to dealers so we stay with them. $25 a month keeps us around out of laziness. If they want higher fees for more expensive books thay have to prove to us sales will make this profitable. ABE's past performance indicates it would fail.
ABE envies the other sites their commissions and hopes for growth. But what do they offer dealers? Just internet listing space. And for small dealers, sales processing.
ABE's growth target is already dominated by Amazon and B&N and others. Claiming a share will not be easy. ABE depends on their dealers, and would bankrupt tomorrow if a large number left. Yet their actions and policies stir dealers to look elsewhere.
Dealers do not mind selling only on commission if it is in our interest. Internet book sales are just a small fraction of the book business, and is a selling tool like anything else. ABE should remember it's just a tool.
. September 01, 2005
I would like to congratulate you on two excellent and well-balanced
articles on ABE in the September issue . However, there are a few comments I would like to add, from the perspective of a long time seller on ABE.
First of all, I appreciate the fact that you focused on the most important issue, which is the difference in motivation and interest between different types of sellers on ABE. My only comment would be that the "antiquarian" seller category - that is, one where customers are the focus and not simply the sale of a book - is quite a bit broader than using the term "antiquarian" implies. There are many sellers like ourselves who have both a carefully chosen selection of good reading books, but not especially valuable ones, where often a sale is simply a "one-time" event, and also a selection of both more expensive and much more uncommon books. I use the term "traditional" bookseller for ourselves and those I see as similar in commitment to customers and knowledge of books and bookselling.
However, one of the things to keep in mind, is that ABE (under its original ownership) did not begin charging a commission on sales as a way to increase revenue, but as a way to enable it to successfully compete in the internet advertising world which is heavily dependent on affiliate commissions. The first commission rate was 5% - and ABE began offering 5% for affiliate fees (then dropped to 3%) - Of course, this did enhance the revenues for ABE since even though they might have been paying out all of the commissions they earned for a new buyer to find ABE, some of those buyers would come back to ABE on their own and eventually sales overall would increase. Initially, ABE even offered a benefit that recognized that its booksellers are a large base of buyers who do not cost ABE an affiliate commission and so commissions were waived on bookseller-to-bookseller transactions. This enabled booksellers to keep offering the traditional trade discount to other sellers, if they wished.
When the commission rate was increased to 8%, this bookseller to bookseller benefit was eliminated.
Thus the original intent of introducing commissions into the "fee mix" was benign: it was intended to increase sales and not just revenues at ABE. Although for most sellers it was a significant increase in expenses (it more than tripled our average monthly fees), many saw an increase in sales also.
It was also emphasized that ABE kept a mixture of flat fees and commissions because it was acting in a dual capacity - it was selling individual books, through affiliates, etc - and it was also enabling booksellers to advertise their business as a whole and attract prospective customers directly. So while some transactions might have been "commission-free" they were not "free" but paid for by the flat fees.
ABE claims that its 8% is "low" compared to other fee structures. It is, but barely: the 15% charged by Amazon and Alibris include credit card processing fees, while ABE charges an additional 5.5% for those sellers who wish to use this (still) optional feature, for a total of 13.5%. Moreover, ABE has a minimum 50c commission, so when one of the numerous "under $6" books listed on the site is sold, the commission rate is much higher than 8% - in fact, up to 50%. (To be fair, it also caps the commission at $40 per item, so very expensive books are charged at a much lower rate).
Also not mentioned in your article is the fact that ABE is no longer owned by the Canadian entrepreneurs who wanted to provide a service to booksellers and make some money doing so; it is now a subsidiary of a German media conglomerate and the bottom line rules!
Finally, let's look at what I consider the real problem at ABE - and that is the claim of 70 million books being offered for sale. When ABE started, each book listed on the site represented a book sitting in a bookseller's store or warehouse or garage. That is still true of many sites - like the ABAA/ILAB site, the new IOBAbooks.com site, the long standing AntiQbook site, and others - but it is no longer true of ABE.
ABE had a "one book, one listing" rule. ABE specifically prohibited data consolidators, relisters, and others who did not actually have the books they were selling.
In April of 2004, the booksellers' performance standards were modified to remove those prohibitions. In order to attract sellers of new books, ABE permits the uploading of a data file which is nothing more than a listing of the in-print books which that seller can access through a wholesaler who will provide shipping fulfillment. The "bookseller" is not making an investment in purchasing books: no books are actually purchased until an order comes in. Should these be included in the 70 million?
The situation gets murkier: some of these data uploaders list the same title at different prices - more than expected retail, at "retail" or discounted - one title: 3 listings. Some list them at one price with free shipping included, and another price with shipping extra. And more than one seller is listing many of the books.
A search for a relatively new in-print book might have 40 results. Of those 40 "listings" perhaps 10 are actually physical books sitting in the stock of an independent bookseller - whether a seller who maintains a store which sells both used and new books, as well as listing on line, or a seller who has a signed first edition, or a seller who has a used copy of this book on hand. The bulk of the "results" simply mean that the "seller" will order this from the wholesaler if an order comes in.
Many of the "books" listed on ABE are print on demand copies, photocopies or ebooks of titles in the public domain. These do not exist until an order comes in for one of them - should these be included in the 70 million claim?
For traditional booksellers like us, the discontent began long before the current "upgrades" - the root of this discontent is in the rapidly declining standards of what used to be an excellent marketplace for both buyers and sellers.
While I might still recommend that a buyer use ABE to find an uncommon book, my recommendation is now hedged with qualifications -
. September 01, 2005
Bibliofind and ABE were similar services and when one was bought and converted, used booksellers were left with ABE, but that was ok as they did a good job. ABE appears to want to compete with Amazon and B&N, from the latest listing changes.
The sales commission fee is now at 8%, and $25 per month listing fee. The slow but deliberate removal of customer contact from dealers is the main problem.
Professional dealers depend on relationships with customers to flourish in business. No collector can form a great collection without the expertise and assistance of a good dealer.
Dealers labor at entering these listings in an accurate and enticing way. Dealers bear the expense of acquiring and holding inventory, shipping to customers, giving advice, and other aspects. ABE just provides an internet listing site, like anyone with expertise could create. Amazon and B&N are still best known to the public.
As ABE has vastly increased its listing dealers (and fee income) many are now inexpert. Current changes are aimed at them so they can avoid mistakes, and at professional dealers limiting customer contact to protect their fees, which damages our business.
Professional dealers no longer list all their best books on ABE. This trend began long ago and is increasing. Eventually ABE will ask too much of dealers and everyone will switch to another listing site, with dire results for ABE. They seem to forget their income is based on our work and inventory.
Bookseller September 01, 2005
What's really going on at abe is that they are positioning themselves for an IPO...and to get the highest price they have to show a history of increasing profits to prove they are a "growth" business. That gets them a higher multiple and higher price for their stock. How do I know this? I just surmise it as a businessman. Remember, abe prices started going up when the book people who founded it ceded control to a businessman who smelled money--not from the salary he would make but from the millions he will reap when abe goes public..
. September 01, 2005
Thanks for the great article on the changes at abe. I suppose I fall somewhere in the middle of the two types of dealers. I have 20 years experience as a librarian and a bookseller in my spare time but I never seem to get hold of antiquarian books to resell so I just make do with the ordinary type.
Some dealers on abe have started listing their phone numbers with their name on the first page of the book search so they can instigate early contact. I wait to see if abe stops this.
Rainy Day Books (Australia)
rwest August 01, 2005
Many thanks for your thoughtful review of Mott's great work, A History of American Magazines. You are right that magazines are disregarded by a large portion of the book dealer population. They are also disregarded by a large portion of the collecting population. Why do first printings of American authors in book form -- such as Poe's "The Raven" -- command values ten to one hundred times greater than the pre-publication first printings of those same works in magazines? If priority is the issue, the magazine appearance wins. If condition is the issue, finding a wrappered copy of a 19th century magazine in fine condition is far more difficult than finding a book in similar condition. If rarity is the issue, it is at least as diffult if not more so locating that wrappered copy over the bound one. So why this discrepancy? I believe this is because the book market is well-established and the dealers knowledgeable. They have educated the market. When more book dealers cultivate an interest in American magazines and help their customers see their value, bibliographically, historically, and aesthetically, the market will follow.
Keep up the good work.
Specializing in Important and Unusual American Magazines.
. July 06, 2005
I must say that I keep your e-mails on the computer for some time. I find them quite useful and thank you, thank you, thank you. I have recently returned to my former company name "Oceanside Books, Inc." and have been in business since 1973. Again thank you.
Oceanside Books, Inc.
PS: Grove St Bookshop did not help my business. Name recognition was the problem.
. July 02, 2005
Mrs. Goldschmidt's relating of their belief in condition, history and importance determining the value of an item reminds me of a story. I was at that time (the early 1970s) working at my "day" job in the computer systems department of a New York City bank. One of my co-workers had acquired the detritus of the estate of the father of her former husband and was looking to sell the small collection of prints it contained. I recognized the importance of many of the images, although the overall conditions of the impressions were poor to average. Nevertheless, I asked Mr. Goldschmidt if he would be interested in having a look, and he replied that he would. I remember him trekking down to the teens of the West Side of Manhattan on a stifling summer's day, and climbing three or four flights of stairs to my co-worker's apartment. He was dressed, of course, in a three-piece woolen suit and tie (He did actually take his jacket off in the apartment, which was not air-conditioned, as I recall). He spent about an hour going through the material and offered to buy three or four prints at a price which my co-worker accepted. I then casually asked him why he chose not to purchase several of the others, which happened to be celebrated images by Rembrandt, Durer and the like. Of course I thought I knew what his explanation would be, and was asking the question for the benefit of my co-worker. His reply was memorable, however: "If one day the collector to whom I might sell one of these pieces was asked, 'Where did you get this print?' I would not want him to have to say 'Goldschmidt'."
P.S. In the story about the "Corsair" system, congratulations in correctly referring to Pierpont Morgan, the father, and J.P. Morgan, the son. It happens so infrequently these days.
. June 06, 2005
Article re phishing.
Many thanks for the warnings. Just a note to say that both e-bay and paypal request that the recipient of requests for updating info should forward the spoof email to them, as it is, before deletion so that they can check it out and act.
addresses: for those in UK
. June 02, 2005
Ref M-Bags..........(June 2005 issue of AE Monthly)
We have them too here in the UK. I use them to send to my regular foreign customers. Unfortunately we have to have a "destination sort" contract with the Royal Mail to spend GBP 2500 (nigh on $5000 at present) before we get to use this particular service. We also get to do all the bagging and tagging ourselves, and account for the services through a posting docket book. They go at three speeds, Economy, Standard, and Priority.
As for packaging boxes to go in M-Bags - I would recommend the following:
* Wrap all valuable items singly in strong bubble-wrap before putting in box.
* For less valuable items make sure page edges of books are away from each other, spines towards each other inside the box.
* Use a strong box.
* Use lots of brown tape to seal all edges and in all directions.
I would apply these procedures to all mailings of books in boxes by any method, but especially to M-Bags as these sacks get thrown violently onto vehicles and shipping containers, a good number of times on their journey. My international customers frequently commend my packaging, whereas some books coming from USA by this method (even in strong boxes) have come to grief. I particularly remember some expensive edge-bound photocopy reproductions of old books that my father ordered for resale. A good number of them arrived with the plastic edge-binders broken (studs snapped etc).
. June 02, 2005
Dear Mr. McKinney,
Michael Stillman's review of my little "publishing promotions" catalog was greatly appreciated. To be included among rather spectacular catalogs by some of our finest booksellers was indeed a thrill. I read every word of AE for the knowledge to be gained to be sure, but as with Michael's review the writing is generally of very high quality and hard to put down (so to speak).
As a new dealer and a fairly specialized one - mostly modern poetry, I have not yet become a "full-fledged" member of AE's community. You have and are certainly helping me more than I could ever have expected.
Thank you. Please thank Michael for his review and for understanding that some of those little items may be quite collectible some day.
Mark Alexander - Alexander Rare Books